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lessons for hearers from 1 thessalonians – mark keown

1 Thessalonians in the Bible

In my last Kiwi-Made Preaching Blog, I wrote of how 1 Thess 1–2 is a wonderful resource for preachers. Through its words, Paul gives us a smorgasbord of preaching morsels. Just as the Thessalonian letters speaks to preachers, it summons us to be good hearers of the word. Indeed, we talk a lot about preaching on these posts. Perhaps we should speak more about the posture of hearers. For indeed, we are justified by faith, and Paul tells us that “faith comes through hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17, NIV). Or, as James puts, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (Jas 1:22, NIV). 

At the time of writing, the Thessalonians had been Christians barely six months. While no doubt a few Jews, proselytes and Gentile God-worshipers from the synagogue were a part of the church, 1 Thess 1:9–10 tells us most were formerly idolatrous pagans. Among other deities, they formerly worshiped the Egyptian gods of the Serapeum and participated in the imperial cult in Roman polytheistic Thessalonica. It was into such an environment Paul, Timothy, and Silas came to Thessalonica to preach (cf. 2 Cor 1:19). They must have wondered how these pagans would receive the message.

We read in Acts 17:1–10 that Paul started in the synagogue, sharing God’s word over three Sabbaths. Some, including Greeks who worshiped Yahweh among the gathered Jews and proselytes and including some leading women, were converted. Others, especially zealous Jews, were not so open to the message. Hard of heart, they responded violently, grabbing loiterers in the agora and launching an assault on Paul and his team. Unable to find them, they took their anger out on Jason and some of the other believers. They dragged them before the authorities accusing them of violating Roman ideals and usurping the emperor’s rule. Our first lesson then is not to receive the word of God the way most of the Jews did in Thessalonica—with hard and resistant hearts. As we come to hear the word of God, no matter what we think we know, our hearts must always be open to hear a fresh word from God!

We hear about the Thessalonica receipt of the word in Chs. 1 and 2. In 1 Thess 1:6, Paul gives thanks for how, despite much affliction, they received the word with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s account in Acts 17 only hints at how tough it was in Thessalonica. Paul’s interest in dead Christians in 1 Thess 4:13–17 may even indicate some lost their lives in this time. Whether or not this is the case, their suffering did not inhibit their zeal. They received the word, and with the joy gifted by the Spirit of God! That is how we should receive the word! Whatever our situation, when someone stands to preach, we should always be open to the word, the Spirit, and receive it with joy.

More than this, these Thessalonians not only received the word but emulating James’ words above, the message moved to action. They became “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thess 1:7). We learn more about this in 1 Thess 4:10—they did works of love throughout the region (cf. 1 Thess 1:3). Hence, they did not say, “nice sermon,” and go home to their comfy couches and Netflix. The gospel moved them into mission; active in the area we now know as modern Greece.

Even more impressively, they became preachers themselves. Some read 1 Thess 1:8 passively as if others shared the story of the Thessalonians’ conversion in the region. A better reading of the verb is that the Thessalonians themselves were the agents of the echoing forth of the gospel; it radiating from them throughout the region. Indeed, this may explain why Paul can say he has fulfilled the preaching of the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum in the western Balkans in Rom 15:19; after he left, the Thessalonians took the gospel further into their region and to the west (where Paul had never been). Anyway, what is impressive is that the hearers became witnesses themselves. We know our work is going well when we preach, and others become increasingly missional; taking the gospel with love, deed, and word into their social contexts.

We also see in 1 Thess 1:9–10 that they also renounced their idols. How thrilling is it for a preacher when the hearers are moved to turn away from the false affections to live with a passion for Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yes, the Thessalonians, baby Christians though they were at the time, show us all including grizzled old disciples like myself how we should receive the word.

Later in 1 Thess 2:13–14, this is reinforced as Paul reiterates their warm welcome of the word. They did not receive the word as the word of people alone, but as it really is, the word of God! Like those first Judean Christians we read of in Acts 1–12, the Thessalonians refused to be put off or inhibited by intense persecution (see esp. Acts 4:19–20; 5:29–32, 41). They received the word with open hearts and joy. They responded by living by it and sharing it to others with loving hearts. This is our challenge: to be open-hearted hearers, to be transformed by the word, and with love, take it to the world.

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